It’s What’s Inside… (#RPGaDay 2017, Day 12)

August is RPGaDay month. Yep, a month solid of RPG-related posts, answering these questions:

Today’s question is this:

Which RPG has the most inspiring interior art?

It bet those who’ve read previous posts in this series know at least some of the answers I’m going to offer. Oh, and one or two of these images might be NSFW, I suppose. Here’s my picks, with some mini-galleries to show off the best examples. 

Oh, and this page will probably be a little slow to load. Lots of images, and I think the gallery plugin is preloading the bigger size for when you load up the slideshow. Just a word of warning…

I’m pretty sure I won’t be the only person to start out by mentioning Skyrealms of Jorune. Seriously, this was next-level stuff back in the 1980s, but even now it’s striking and unique, and very much suggestive of a dramatic, fascinatingly alien world on the other side of the galaxy: 

What can I say? Most of the people who took an interest in Jorune at any time were drawn in by the astonishing il, intensely distinctive work of Miles Teves. Word is he never made much money on them, but they definitely inspired a generation of grognards. (And over the years Teves has been rather generous about people reusing the art—with his permission, of course—in not-for-profit Jorune-related projects.)

I also really like the interior art in many Lamentations of the Flame Princess books—and it varies from book to book, because James Raggi has a stable of different artists he hires for different projects. It’s probably one of the more controversial things about his game line, but I think it’s basically what conveys the tone of the line, even in the (mostly more neutral-toned) core Rules & Magic rulebook.   

And yeah, it’s mainly for the LotFP artworks that put that NSFW warning above. Funnily enough, I agree with a few people that, but for the art, the Rules & Magic book would be a great ruleset to introduce young people to D&D. (Then again, there is an art-free version of the rules online; you could give ’em that and invite them to illustrate it themselves… maybe inspiring another RPG illustrator for the next generation?)

I don’t know if any of the artists who work for LotFP have seen the Engel books—only a few got translated to English, and apparently the implementation of d20 rules used in the English version of the game were radically horrible—bad enough to sink the line—but the interior art in the books I’ve seen was pretty amazing. Here’s some images by Eva Widermann from the bestiary supplement Creatures of the Dreamseed that I think are outstanding:

Here are some of her concept sketches: I don’t think they ended up in Dreamseed—there were many German-language books they could have ended up in, though—but they’re pretty (in a horrifying, dreadful way) to look at:

The attempt to translate Engel to English (and, I’ve heard, the original German franchise, too, in the end) may have foundered, but the artwork was a success—surely enough a success that I spent hours searching online for a set of the .tif file versions of the Arkana Cards that got sent out for free to everyone who requested them (after the English version of the Arkana Rules system was published online). The search (that was conducted even unto the very bowels of the Internet) was worth it: the cards are quite beautiful.

I’d actually love to adapt the cards to English, even though it’d be hard to do an optimal adaptation without the original files, I could probably do something passable—but I’m not sure I’ll ever end up playing Engel, so likely there’s no point. 

Anyone following this series is by now aware that I’m a massive fan of Wraith: The Oblivion. It will likely surprise nobody that I also like the artwork in the books: not all of it, of course, but some of it was both excellent and evocative of the setting and mood of the game:

If you can’t get into a creepy, underworldly mood looking at those images, I don’t know what to offer you. Because I don’t know the names of all the artists, I’m not going to the trouble of linking them all, but I’m sure the enterprising can discover who did these illustrations.  

Jim Holloway’s art in Paranoia is manic and hilarious , and in fact his illustrations were so much a part of the game’s trade brand that when he stopped illustrating Paranoia supplements—I think around the time Mongoose released the Big Book of Bots supplement (for the XP line), there was a sort of uprising among fans of the game. 

I think that’s a bit unfair to the later artists who were brought on to illustrate later Paranoia books—and whose art, eventually, grew on some of those complaining: I think it’s alright, myself—but there’s no argument that Holloway left some really big shoes to fill. His cartoony, goofy, and brutal illustrations somehow nailed down something essential about the game and its setting early on, and defined it in a way that makes me wonder what kind of a game it’d have ended up being if he’d never done a single illustration for it. (I suspect the game franchise would have been somewhat poorer and also somewhat shorter-lived if that had been the case.)

Holloway’s webpage seems to be long gone, you can see it via the Wayback Machine. His art for other games (much of which appeared in Dragon magazine) was great too—he did tons of great, gut-bustingly funny fantasy and postapocalyptic illustration. But I was talking about Paranoia, so let’s get back to that:

That said, whatever you think of Mongoose’s new take on Paranoia (the crowdfunded new edition one with the card-based combat system), I think it’s fair to say they were wise to move farther away from Holloway’s style, toward something a little different. If they’d continued to reuse his illustrations, I think it would have only further driven home how different the new game is mechanically, for those players who’re longtime Paranoia fans. 

Though I never bought or played Planescape or Changeling: the Dreaming—the former rose and fell while I was not RPGing andI was took broke for the latter—I have to say Tony DiTerlizzi‘s work on both lines was really unique and great:

Tony DiTerlizzi has, of course, gone on to all kinds of great things—for example, I have a copy of the first of his Wondla series of books on my desk, waiting for me to have the time to read it, and my wife has The Spider and the Fly on order, after we read through it at the local library (yes, in our little Korean town, in English). Though he does drop in for occasional gigs—I believe he was involved in the Changeling 20th Anniversary edition—I think most of the shrinking RPG world probably can’t afford him anymore, but for a while, he really lit up a lot of gamer imaginations… and for players of a certain age, I can say for a fact that his work still does today.   

Finally, and this is kind of cheating since (as far as I understand it) the artbooks predate the RPG, but I backed the latest of Simon Stålenhag’s artbooks in part to get a bunch of posters and prints and stuff, but also so I could get a copy of Tales From the Loop RPG. The man’s art makes the concept feel exciting and viable as a game setting in a way I might not have otherwise imagined, and I think it could get any RPGer’s creative juices flowing. I mean, look at this:

There’s something about what Stålenhag does in blending a kind childhood nostalgia for the 80s (and especially children’s adventure narratives from the 80s) with bleeding edge science fiction landscape art that goes beyond mere cyberpunk styling to imagine a world where the future is already littered with futuristic detritus in that lost era that was the childhood of what I imagine are most of his fans. 

I could go on about other RPGs interior artwork—I think a lot of them have had amazing work over the years, and not always because it’s flashy. I think the simple line-art figures in the Fiasco books are really pretty much perfect at capturing the feel and style of that game, for example:

I’m not sure who was the lead artist, though I think it’s John Harper—though the game’s designer, Jason Morningstar, also has an art credit along with Kathy Schad (for whom I can’t find a proper link). 

The art in Fiasco is actually so great it it’s inspired me to try create covers for the few playsets I’ve created that I plan to release soon online:

Those are a poor approximation of the style in Fiasco, and I could probably do better if I had time (or, you know, weren’t doing it for free)… but, well, anyway, the playsets are more artful than the covers. (The first is set in Seoul, among dregs-of-the-earth expat teachers, US military scumbags, and sleazy Korean employers, lovers, and crooks. The second is a sort of super-villains playset riffing on—but not really beholden to—the Evil Trio from the Buffy The Vampire Slayer series. If you want them, stay tuned or comment below, and maybe I’ll get them posted sometime soon.) 

To be honest, some of these picks are purely nostalgic, and others have a lot to do with what’s on hand on my own shelves. The art in a lot of other games I’ve looked at over the last few years has been pretty phenomenal too.

I think, like I said before, that we’re kind of in a golden age as far as RPG artwork is concerned. It used to be, “Is the artwork any good?”—and, obviously, Erol Otus and other early RPG illustrators have their charms, as the OSR community eagerly reminds us at every opportunity—but things have progressed to the level now where you don’t even have to ask if the art is “good” anymore: it’s more a question of how well it reflects the game, or whether the writing is better than the art.

Sometimes, indeed, I feel like the bar has been raised to the point where we only take notice of the artwork when it’s unusually poor, just as with good writing. The bar has been raised so high now that RPG book illustrations need to be unusually amazing to get fawned over. 

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